Computing fossils: Old tech holding on for dear life

Some ancient technology is still useful -- and some just won't die.

looking for fossils

Consider the abacus. Developed perhaps as long as 4,500 years ago, this handy gadget served the mathematical needs of merchants and accountants until the development of mechanical calculating machines in the 19th century. Today, the abacus lives on in niches -- for instance teaching preschoolers the basics of counting.

There are a number of obsolete technologies and gadgets that have persisted from slightly less ancient times right down to the current day, though again in greatly diminished numbers and scope. A brief tour through these technological fossils serves as a lesson on the durability of items we sometimes think of as ephemeral.

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See also: 20 historic tech sounds you may have forgotten

Plugboards still plugging along

Retro computer geeks everywhere were all aflutter a few years ago with the report of an IBM 402, first introduced in 1948, still in use. Sparkler Filters, a Texas company that manufactures water filtration equipment, uses this punchcard machine for accounting, and even a delegation from a hobbyist group couldn't convince them to give it to a museum and replace it with a modern computer.

Technically, an IBM 402 isn't even a computer -- it's a tabulating machine, "programmed" by arranging wires on a plugboard. They were reliable, and if you need one to do only one task, and it still works, then why replace it?


MicroVAX put out to pasture

Techies take pride in using genuinely antiquated systems. Thus it's no surprise that a humble-brag post on Reddit from YouCantOutrunABear, describing the 23-year-old system he uses working for a silver mining company, bubbled up to Reddit's front page.

The computer, a MicroVAX 3100 from the Digital Equipment Corporation, sports an awesome 12 MB of RAM. It's running OpenVMS, used in 1989 and still produced by Hewlett-Packard, though installing the latest version on that old machine would be tough.

YouCantOutrunABear's machine runs several non-mission-critical programs, including computations on silver price conversions; it also prints labels onto an almost as antiquated printer. The monitor sitting on a brick is a nice touch.


The ghost of a PDP-11

In the 1970s, the U.S. Navy and American Airlines used the PDP-11 from DEC to build the Multi-station Spatial Disorientation Device (MSDD). It was like a souped-up carnival ride that kept riders in the dark to simulate the disorientation felt in planes at night.

The MSDD was used until 2007, when it became too expensive to keep working. Migration Specialties moved the Navy to a modern machine which simulates a PDP-11 exactly. That FORTRAN code is still running on a PDP emulation card, which in turn emulates a fighter jet spinning out of control at night.

You don't want to be the one who has to clean this thing.

Flat file database

The flat file database that wouldn't die

Now onto the true black hole of U.S. government IT: the IRS. For decades, the IRS held tax records in an Individual Master File, an enormous flat file containing millions of records, stored on big spinning wheels of magnetic tape, accessed via COBOL code.

Finally, in Janurary 2012, Customer Account Data Engine (CADE), a conventional database system run on IBM hardware, replaced Master File. And that switchover was only for data for individuals; business and retirement plans taxes are kept on the old system.

Will paper returns also be a thing of the past? Don't hold your breath.


Big Blue predicts blue skies

Sometimes longtime government use of technology isn't the result of chaos and incompetence, but simple thriftiness. When it comes to weather predictions, satellites and doppler radar get all the press, but the National Weather Service still relies on good old-fashioned balloons -- and much of the data sent from those balloons is still processed by good old-fashioned IBM PC/XT machines, dating from the 1980s. It did turn out that 640 KB wasn't enough for everybody, but it seems that it's still good for many purposes.

Windows XP

Wait, what did 'XP' stand for?

Is your PC among the 40.7% still running Windows XP? This archaic, outdated operating system was released in October 2001. To show you how long ago that is (and to make you feel old), ten and a half years before that was April 1991, when Windows 3.0 was Microsoft's reigning operating system.

With such a large installed base, it's a good bet that an article like this one written ten years from now will include "ancient x86 box running Windows XP" in its rogues' gallery.

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